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POLICY MEMORANDUM: WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION (WMD) TERRORISM

*The following is a student policy memo. Memo used open source material not cited here.

Image by NYC Marines Terrorism Training in NYC. http://www.flickr.com/photos/nycmarines/4546231671/

FROM: Jeremiah Granden SUBJECT: Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Terrorism Assessment

WMD TERRORISM THREAT ASSESSMENT Despite its low likelihood, mass casualty terrorism, defined here as an attack designed to claim a maximum number of casualties, is a significant threat to the United States. It is a threat because the United States is a high risk, high reward target. Unlike in the Middle East and South Asia, where seventy percent of the worlds terror attacks have occurred over the last decade, the U.S. does not have domestic terror groups of any great importance. In places where terrorism is a chronic issue there is a heavy reliance on firearms and explosives, as these are the most efficient and readily available terrorist tools. Conversely, the terrorists that want to target the U.S. typically have to fly across an ocean, navigate a security checkpoint or make a clandestine border crossing, operate in unfamiliar terrain without a sympathetic local population to garner support from or hide out in, and evade law enforcement. Given this high buy-in, and the reality that the terrorist is likely to be captured before or after his or her first effort, it is more reasonable for a terrorist in the U.S. to carry out a bold, significant attack that claims a lot of lives than it is to waste time on an attrition strategy of discrete bombings and shootings that makes more sense in a less stable, more divided society like Kashmir. While this means that the U.S. is immune to the constant dribble of attacks that plague much of the world it does mean that those few groups who would target the U.S. directly are more likely to attempt mass casualty attacks like 9-11 and that vigilance is called for in regard to WMD security. A WMD attack is defined as an attack designed to create a high number of casualties and/or significant property damage, in particular one that uses chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons (CBRN). The terms WMD and CBRN are not interchangeable; the 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvenenko with polonium210 was not a WMD attack even though radiological materials were used. The key factor in defining a WMD attack is the targeting of people and property in an indiscriminate and malicious way using high efficiency and/or frightening weapons. In addition to large scale attacks with unconventional weapons like commercial airplanes (which are unlikely to enjoy much utility as WMDs now that airport security has been bolstered and passengers have come to realize that a hijacking incident could end in death) the WMD threat can be largely classified within the CBRM framework augmented with mass casualty attacks using traditional explosives. Each of these attack modes has assets and liabilities for the user, and while any mass casualty attack on American soil is likely to impact the homeland and its citizens in ways that cannot be predicted, it is possible to outline a tentative threat hierarchy based on weapon type. This analysis recommends the following rankings, ordered from highest to lowest in terms of significance: 1) nuclear 2) biological 3) mass casualty attacks using traditional explosives 4) radiological 5) chemical. This ranking system was obtained by weighing factors such as effectiveness, availability of materials, and the incentives to be found in pursuing one type of weapon over another. Consequence tends to outweigh likelihood in this rubric; for instance, a nuclear attack is seen as a greater threat than a chemical attack even though chemical weapons are easier to acquire. However, technical considerations make radiological attacks less of a threat than traditional explosives attacks, even though binding radiological material to bombs would create higher consequences, so consequence does not have absolute primacy over

other measuring factors. Nuclear weapons present the most significant threat because a wellplaced bomb could generate tens of thousands of casualties and level the target area. High amounts of radiation would make for a costly and difficult cleanup effort, which would be especially problematic if terrorists targeted a vital port city like New York or New Orleans. Such an attack could spark an economic recession or depression and would have a deleterious effect on the national psyche. The trauma of a nuclear detonation may be so great that the U.S. could be compelled to reverse its foreign policy in significant ways. Even though the availability of nuclear weapons is very low and the fabrication of nuclear weapons is very difficult, the extreme costs of a nuclear attack warrant its ranking as the most important WMD threat. Biological weapons have the potential to cause as many, if not more, casualties than nuclear weapons and it is easier to obtain dangerous biological agents than weapons-grade nuclear material; however, biological weapons are limited in several important ways. First, biological materials are hard to weaponize and often have limited efficacy. For instance, while a smallpox outbreak would be horrifying, the disease is not extraordinarily contagious outside of enclosed spaces and could feasibly be contained and vaccinated against in short order. Also, a terror groups wayward spreading of deadly infectious diseases could easily alienate its donors and present an unappealing risk of collateral damage. The exception to the rule is anthrax, whose spores make it both easier to deliver in aerosol form and distribute in a controlled manner. While it appears unlikely that any current sub-state actor can produce enough weaponized anthrax to carry out a mass casualty attack, anthrax is a bio-agent of significant concern. Traditional explosives, like those used in the Oklahoma City bombing, are readily available and have an established track record. It is possible that terrorists could destroy important buildings or pieces of infrastructure with explosives, but such an incident could not match the overwhelming power of a nuclear attack or the intrinsic ghoulishness of a significant bioweapon attack. It may be that such an attack would be seen as a step down from the horror of 9-11. Radiological weapons, where radioactive materials are wedded to traditional explosives, pose several practical problems for terror groups. As is the case with nuclear weapons, special efforts need to be made to acquire the materials. Large quantities are often required. Al-Qaeda once toyed with the idea of building a radiation dispersal device (RDD) out of smoke detector batteries. In order for the RDD to have been effective, al-Qaeda would have needed to acquire a million or more such batteries. The most suitable radioactive materials are the most hazardous to work with, and it is possible that a RDD plot would require suicide technicians willing to die of radiation poisoning to complete the assembly process. Also, the efficacy of RDDs is unclear. An effective RDD could cause significant panic, several casualties, and require a costly cleanup effort, but its effects would be more localized than that of an effective nuclear or biological attack. Chemical weapons, while they have been applied with some efficacy by state actors like Iraq and are the easiest to obtain out of the four, are the least likely to be used in the U.S. Chemical mass casualty attacks would require a high volume of the agent and a reliable means of delivery, such as a squadron of jets armed with chemical bombs, to achieve maximum effectiveness and are thus outside the capabilities of a terror cell. That said, Aum Shinrikyo used sarin to achieve mass panic and a small number of casualties in the 1995 Tokyo subway attacks so the threat cannot be discounted. Furthermore, it is possible that terrorists could try to destroy chemical facilities to create a chemical spill of sorts, although there have not been any historical cases of this despite the ubiquity of these facilities throughout the world. A more common variant of the industrial attack strategy is the detonation of trucks loaded with chlorine gas; such attacks have occasionally been carried out in Iraq but lack the scale needed to qualify as a significant risk to the U.S.

Overall, the U.S. should be optimistic about its ability to avoid a catastrophic terror attack. Terrorist groups face significant challenges in the WMD realm; even Aum Shinrikyo, which was obsessed with WMDs and spent millions pursuing them, made limited progress in its quest for obtainment. Since most terror groups are focused on local political issues and are unlikely to advance their domestic goals with WMDs, much less so if they wield them against a country on another continent, the U.S. has little to fear overall. The main group of interest on the WMD front is al-Qaeda. In coming years groups like al-Qaeda are expect to continue to seek greater lethality in their attacks. Some analysts are concerned about cyber terrorism targeting critical infrastructure; but it is most likely that terror groups will only make minor gains with denial of service attacks, computer hacking, and the like. U.S. interests will continue to be challenged overseas, where terror attacks will likely involve the traditional bombings and shootings, especially in weakly governed areas. State sponsorship of terrorism appears to be on the wane, which is also helpful in keeping WMDs away from terrorists. However, given the high costs of a WMD attack, al-Qaedas clear desire to inflict damage on the U.S., and the fact that al-Qaeda has pursued WMDs for the last several years, counterterrorism deserves a central place in U.S. security strategy. ANALYTICAL FOUNDATIONS WMD terrorism has limited appeal for all but certain groups. These groups tend to be fundamentalist in nature and harbor a profound level of animosity toward their enemy. They may also possess a millenarian or apocalyptic perspective. They tend to seek impossible revisions to the international order (e.g. an Islamic Caliphate, the end of Israels existence, the end of the world) and thus have less reason to hedge tactically than groups seeking objectives than can be satisfied. Also, WMD seekers are often transnational in nature, which means they may lack the level of local interest that could dissuade them from, say, causing irreversible harm to an enemy city via a nuclear weapon. Al-Qaeda, which wants to drive the U.S. out of the Arab world, end religious pluralism, and roll back womens rights, cannot be satisfied with a peace settlement or political incorporation, nor does it have a singular commitment to any regional or domestic concern, so the pursuit of WMDs is strongly indicated for this group. This assessment bears out historically. Not only was 9-11 a mass casualty attack where planes were used as WMDs but the group has made numerous attempts to obtain capabilities of the CBRN variety. Al-Qaedas fortunes, and its potential for carrying out WMD attacks in the U.S., appear to be on the wane. Bin Ladens death was a symbolic blow to the organization (while having little impact in the practical sense), U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Pakistan have made it increasingly difficult for the organization to function out of its key stronghold, al-Qaeda has no state sponsors and few clear allies, the Arab Spring may have given potential recruits a different political model to emulate, efforts to block financing have caused the organizations cash flow to dwindle, and it has been unsuccessful outside of conflict zones and weak states for several years now. A recent Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) report indicates that the organization has been unable to recruit sleeper agents in the U.S., which makes mass casualty attacks like 9-11 difficult to repeat and sustained operations all but impossible. Thanks to international security measures, the organization has no choice but to operate in small cells where the one man, one bomb strategy (which refers to an emphasis on lone bombing attacks) may represent the extent of the organizations capacity. Event this strategy has limits. Between 2005 and 2010 the U.S. and Europe only experienced four attacks from all al-Qaeda factions, with 94% of all al-Qaeda

attacks occurring in conjunction with the insurgencies in Iraq and Algeria. Involvement in insurgencies in these places, as well as in locales like Afghanistan and Somalia, may make mass casualty attacks more likely in the affected region but the allocation of resources to insurgent efforts does little to enhance the likelihood of a 9-11 style or WMD attack against the West. Granted, al-Qaedas relationship with groups like Pakistans Lashkar-e-Taliba (LeT) and the Moro Islamic Revolution Front (MILF) in the Philippines indicate the organization has a stronger global position than what the statistics indicate; however, the fact that a highly motivated, transnational group like al-Qaeda has not been able to follow up the successes of the earlier part of the last decade is indicative of lost (or previously overrated) capability outside of insurgent theaters. Its technological capacities are limited by constant counterterrorism pressures. It takes time and resources to coordinate mass casualty attacks, especially if one is using WMDs, and constantly being pursued by law enforcement and/or Predator drones is not conducive to such an endeavor. The challenges of CBRN acquisition and use are significant in the best of circumstances. For instance, al-Qaeda has been exposed to numerous scams involving the purchase of non-weapons grade nuclear materials. Not only does al-Qaeda have to evade an unparalleled level of international attention but it also has to work through the intrinsic obstacles to WMD development, all in all a formidable task. Its only potential advantage in this regard is its base of operations in Pakistan, a weak state where al-Qaeda has a sympathetic population in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and conceivable access to nuclear weapons and materials. Pakistan will be discussed in greater detail later. Americas status as a free and democratic society makes it vulnerable to certain kinds of attacks; however, it pays immense dividends in mitigating the overall threat of terrorism. Terrorists may see the U.S. leaderships vulnerability to public pressure as a way to change policy by inflicting grave costs, and such a strategy may work if the point of contention is of marginal U.S. interests. Americans may well not see the advantage of, say, a sustained military presence in the Middle East driven by an opaque set of issues if it is purchased at the cost of a nuclear explosion in the homeland. It is unlikely that any terrorist attack, no matter how grave, would force compliance on a vital security concern. The fact that freedom of movement for people and goods is not especially restricted within the country poses another set of risks; as terrorists have more potential to access targets and transport dangerous materials. Given the aforementioned disadvantages that terrorists operating here tend to face and the fact that law enforcement has on some level detected every al-Qaeda plot ever attempted on American soil, including 9-11, this does not factor as a significant vulnerability. The fact that the largest mass casualty terror attack ever perpetrated failed to accomplish any of al-Qaedas strategic goals should be instructive in regard to the U.S.s intrinsic vulnerability to terrorism. The most difficult aspect of the WMD problem is measuring the threat and managing reaction. Every day, over a million airline passengers in the U.S. partake in the time-consuming ritual of removing their shoes at security checkpoints, all because of a single failed attack in 2001. Policymakers could cease the practice and run the risk of a shoe bombing that is extremely unlikely to occur, or hedge and require all passengers to do this even though it wastes time and resources in the extreme majority of cases. The assessment of risk based on threat type is also problematic; in 2001 two major think tanks conducted an exercise with high level policymakers called Dark Winter where the central conceit was terrorist use of weaponized smallpox. However, the designers assigned the disease an unrealistic base reproduction number (R0) in their model, which exaggerated the transmissibility of the disease and drastically drove up the

perceived consequences of such an attack. When policymakers have to integrate scientific knowledge, which may be incomplete due to a dearth of case studies and a lack of testability, into their calculations the tendency to exaggerate the more frightening and exotic potentialities seems to be pronounced. Similarly, if a threat has limited imaginative purchase or seems illogical such a tendency is reversed. The lack of follow up on law enforcement warnings in the days prior to 9-11 exemplifies this. Mass media plays a role in this process by manufacturing threats for public consumption. There are ample examples of widely disseminated threats (e.g. much of the Red Scare) whose significance was ultimately found to be overstated or nonexistent as well as meaningful problems (e.g. high moral hazard in American financial institutions) that are neglected until it is too late. To compound this, security measures and a constant threat atmosphere quickly becomes tiresome. Unfortunately, unless the free transmission of information is halted cycles of hysteria and complacency are expected to continue and policymakers must rely on a rigorous and continued (re)assessment of problems like terrorism rather than the ebb and flow of popular opinion. ALTERNATIVE STRATEGIES The following alternative strategies will be weighed: prevention, negotiation, nationbuilding/democratic/market approaches, preemption, defense, invasion, and deterrence. Prevention, which would entail actions such as intelligence gathering, law enforcement, and selective military action, should be a core element of U.S. WMD counterterrorism strategy. It has proven effective in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and Arab states such as Egypt. Its effectiveness is limited in places that the U.S. and its allies cannot police or monitor. Negotiation, with the goal of incorporating terror groups into the political process, has been an effective strategy for dealing with some terrorist factions but would be a poor approach for potential WMD users. These groups have unobtainable goals and high levels of animosity and it is unlikely that the approach would prove fruitful. Negotiation can be used to separate terror groups from local insurgencies, however. Nation-building/democratic/market approaches have a mixed potential for counterterrorism. The key is for the gains of such a strategy to be distributed evenly across the subject population, which is unlikely on the economic front if undue faith is place in the wisdom of the market. There is also the risk that democratic processes may empower terror groups. When possible, preemption is a necessary strategy when dealing with an imminent WMD threat. In each case the risks of a preemptive strike will need to be weighed against the benefits. Defensive measures, while necessary, are often costly and incomplete. Radiation detectors in the U.S. go off an estimated thousand times a day, which both wastes resources and drives complacency. The U.S. cannot both maintain current levels of trade and achieve absolute security through defensive measures, so while technical improvements should be sought on this front, a measured approach to resource allocation is called for. Missile defense is not a meaningful way to counter WMD terrorism at this time. Defensive measures such as vaccination stockpiling and emergency response plans have specific pertinence to biological terror defense. Invasion is a problematic approach. Unless the U.S. is dealing with a state that cannot or will not secure its nuclear materials or terrorist bioweapon capabilities go through a rapid evolution and a

specific area needs to be shut down as a result, there is little argument for the military to hold land to counter a WMD threat. In most cases, assistance should be given to the local regime rather than opting to invade. Deterrence can be an effective strategy through the imposition of high costs in the pursuit of WMD capabilities. Deterrence by denial will be most effective in dealing with terror groups though the safeguarding of materials, passive defense measure, and the like. Deterrence by punishment will be most effective in contending with state sponsors of terrorism and terrorist donors. COUNTERTERRORISM BLUEPRINT RECOMMENDTIONS While all of the above methods, and others, should have a place in the WMD counterterrorism rubric, the core of U.S. WMD counterterrorism strategy should be deterrence, prevention, defense, and selective nation-building. Primary goals are the breakdown of al-Qaedas cohesiveness and ability to organize large scale attacks, a robust nuclear materials security framework, greater efficiency in screening people and goods entering the U.S., and mitigation of the bioweapons threat. Efficacy will be measured using a metric of failed and successful attacks and acquisition efforts (less plots and acquisition efforts equal success) and nature of al-Qaeda attack (an emphasis on one man, one bomb style attacks rather than coordinated attacks is a positive sign). Al-Qaeda operations in insurgent campaigns will be factored in with a different metric, as this is a different threat. A deterrence strategy is vital because the U.S. and its allies cannot hope to contain every potential WMD agent and unearth every terrorist plot. Deterrence by denial will prove most effective in dealing with the nuclear threat. While scenarios such as the theft of a complete nuclear weapon are unlikely, there is some risk that unsecured stockpiles of radiological material could be used in WMD fabrication. While the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit produced more incremental changes to mitigate this hazard the nuclear security framework is still significantly weaker than it is with international institutions such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). A central point of resistance is Russia, which denies the need to convert from highly enriched uranium (HEU) to low enriched uranium (LEU) in several of its facilities. It is unlikely that Russia will give ground on this issue, so perhaps a set of international standards on the physical security and inventory management front would be a sensible alternative. Investing in greater nuclear forensic capability will give a greater likelihood of establishing a return address and, when coupled with the threat of punishment, should deter both the knowing transfer and irresponsible handling of nuclear materials on the part of state actors. Deterrence by denial will be less effective on the biological and chemical front, but reinforcing the normative message that this mode of attack is morally reprehensible may reap benefits. Deterrence by punishment strategies directed toward terror groups are unlikely to succeed, although pressure can be put on donors. Prevention will entail work at the law enforcement, intelligence-gathering, and military levels. Intelligence gathering is the key component. Human intelligence (HUMINT) capabilities deserve continued investment, and DOD signals intelligence (SIGINT) and reconnaissance assets should continue to focus on potential WMD transfer areas like the Trans-Sahara. There is no formula for actionable intelligence. When approaching terrorism from the law enforcement front this is not a significant challenge, as the police are free to investigate legally-obtained leads. It is more

difficult on the military front. While drone strikes in the FATA will need to eventually end in order to preserve the U.S./Pakistani relationship, there will be less initial barriers to their use in places like Africa (which some analysis predicts to be the next al-Qaeda stronghold). To the extent that drones are usable, the rule should be that the needed level of certainty rises with the political costs. A very high level of certainty is needed if ground troops and manned vehicles need to be used, although this is lowered if U.S. forces are already operating in the area. It is important to remember that the WMD threat remains low, and sacrificing key strategic relationships like the one with Pakistan will harm our long-term ability to operate overseas and increase the risk of negative outcomes, so it is counterproductive to apply a military fix to every piece of WMD chatter that surfaces. Furthermore, the RAND Corporation found that military action ended only seven percent of terrorist campaigns. The U.S.s best hope of preventing catastrophic attacks rests with law enforcement and the intelligence community. Al-Qaeda, however, should be targeted on all available fronts to the greatest extent that is politically feasible as its elimination would drastically reduce the odds of a WMD attack on American soil. Defense will doubtlessly continue in the form of radiation detectors, funding for terrorism response exercises, and the like. A full-proof shield can be striven for, but is impossible in a free society. These measures remain necessary, however, and greater efficiency should be sought out. Public health measures like vaccination stockpiles, as well as a push to improve the anthrax vaccine specifically, will be worthwhile. While the challenges of nation-building are well known, the strengthening of critical states like Pakistan is strongly indicated. The U.S. should make itself an ally to the greatest extent possible while helping the Pakistani government carry out measures like reforming its legal system so more court convictions take place. The impetus for U.S. assistance is lessened in places like Somalia as there is not the same indigenous WMD threat, but help in the formation of state security services as well as providing humanitarian and economic assistance is a welcome strategy. This assistance should not be used as a way to push democratic and free market ideals; the form the local government and economy should take is best left to the society in question unless it directly counters terrorism containment goals.